Review: The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O'Neill

In the run-up to the winner of the 2017 Baileys Prize being announced on June 7th, Becky Lea reads her way through the longlist and offers her thoughts.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel.png

Rose and Pierrot grow up in the same orphanage, drawn to each other by a love of performance and the ability to make their fellow inmates laugh. The orphanage tries to suppress them and eventually force the pair apart as they head out into early 20th century Montreal to make their own lives. But fate has other ideas.

Heather O’Neill channels Angela Carter in her novel, filling it with the kind of fairytale theatricality and caustic wit that Carter specialised in, right down to the chapter titles. O’Neill’s narratorial voice adopts a kind of childlike simplicity that clashes beautifully with the moments of sex and violence that punctuates Rose and Pierrot’s story. They function as short, sharp shocks, reminders that the underbelly of their world is never far away from the kind of idyllic experience that both characters desire.

And as with all the best fairytales, nothing is so clean-cut or wholesome. O’Neill also populates her novel with a variety of secondary characters whose relationships with the main pair are used to explore themes of ambition, loss, and abuse at both personal and institutional levels. Rose and Pierrot’s unconventionality begins as quirks of their personalities, but soon become the armour that they use to deflect the violence of the outside world. 

Rose with her pale skin, blushing cheeks, black hair, and a habit of dancing with imaginary bears could have walked straight in from a Disney animation. Pierrot’s louche romanticism and easy charm is the stuff of a rags-to-riches hero, but O’Neill isn’t interested in keeping them conventional. Rose is prepared to do just about anything to achieve her ambition and Pierrot’s weaknesses threaten to derail him at every turn. 

The Lonely Hearts Hotel is a witty, arabesque fairytale of what happens when performance clashes with reality. It’s ambitious and occasionally unwieldy, but it’s O’Neill’s best novel to date and a thoroughly entertaining read.